Ten days ago I argued that FBI Director James Comey had changed the dynamics of the 2016 election in an irreversible way, with his announcement of a new trove of potentially “relevant” emails on Anthony Weiner’s computers. After Comey’s “oh, never mind” followup yesterday, less than 48 hours before election day, I argued that his series of mis-judgments about the FBI’s proper role in electoral politics, and his apparent lack of control over the agency, meant that someone else should take his place. But it would be better all around, according to me, if Comey resigned sometime soon after the election, instead of forcing either the president who appointed him (Obama) or the next president in line (presumably Clinton) to fire him.
Readers disagree—most of them because they think Comey deserves harsher treatment, but some for the opposite reason. Here we go:
There is a silver lining. A reader in the tech industry says that the whole episode might have one positive result:
It should put to rest the storyline that Clinton obstructed justice by destroying damaging emails. This previously unknown cache of unscreened email yielded no evidence of criminality, thus undermining the argument that Clinton’s emails were sanitized.
‘Egregious error.’ From a lawyer on the East Coast:
I disagree with your conclusion that Clinton, if she wins, should not fire Comey (or demand his resignation, which amounts to the same thing). Yes, to some people, particularly the Trump supporters, this might look like revenge. And certainly, GOP elected officials will take the opportunity to make the same claim. But those people are incorrigible, and trying to appease them or seek their approval is a no-win situation.
The fact is that pretty much everyone, including Republicans, agree that Comey made an egregious error in judgment. Can you think of any other post-Hoover FBI Director who has made such a significant public mistake? But for the twisted political environment we’re in, that alone should be grounds for firing. Assuming that Comey stumbled innocently with his original letter a week and a half ago, he should, within 48 hours, have issued a clarification intended to remove any unintended implications. That he waited in silence until now compounded his error.
In addition, it appears to be that Comey has, as a number of commentators put it, lost control of his agency. Again, this should be grounds for termination, and Clinton should bring in a new director to clean house and impose some real discipline on the agency. That some agents are intervening in the political process by leaking information is inexcusable.
I note that, when first elected, Obama chose not to pursue criminal actions against any members of the Bush Administration, even though there likely were sufficient grounds to do so. The reason was that Obama feared that the partisan reaction to prosecuting would have poisoned the well and eliminated any chance of the GOP working with him on his legislative agenda. Of course, as we now know, the GOP refused to cooperate anyway. (In addition, Obama chose not to seek indictments because he was loathe to create the apparent precedent of prosecuting the prior administration. IN this regard, he showed prudent, long-range thinking.)
Investigations would be good, not bad. Another reader wanting a tougher line:
Respectfully, I think you’re way off base here. First, you summarily conclude that “hearings or investigations into whatever has happened at the FBI would not be worth it for anyone.”
The problem here is that an investigation into whatever happened at the FBI is not simply a matter of punishing the director for his error/malfeasance, but actually investigating a disturbing series of events at the nation’s national largest law enforcement agency. It wasn’t just Comey. Credible reports indicate that (1) Comey acted in part because he knew an anti-Clinton faction at the FBI would leak it first; and (2) that there is a rogue faction at the FBI that was pushing against FBI and DOJ orders to investigate a public candidate for office and to leak damaging information and innuendo at a critical time in the election season. At the very least, the director is unable to control his bureau. What happened absolutely needs to be investigated, and whatever bad actors responsible need to be rooted out. If there is a larger cultural problem at the FBI, that needs to be exposed and fixed.
Otherwise, this will continue. And not just in elections. What if this faction decides to investigate members of the Clinton administration, and leak personal information to the press? How can President Clinton or her AG trust the FBI, if they suspect the FBI will leak critical information? Just because Republicans have abused their investigative powers does not mean there isn’t a real value to them.
Second, you recognize that Comey cannot continue at the FBI, but you argue that neither Clinton nor Obama should fire him, because that would appear too political, and the FBI director’s 10-year term is supposed to insulate the FBI from political pressure.
Well, that ship sailed. Maybe the 10-year term was supposed to insulate Comey from political pressure, but it clearly did not. The president also possesses the authority to fire the director, presumably in situations where politics be damned, the director cannot continue in his job. This is just one situation, as you yourself recognize.
Third, if firing Comey would be too political, how is it any better for Obama to publicly castigate him and pressure him to resign?
Fourth, you’re judging the Democrats by a double standard. Comey can interfere in a general election in violation of both agency policy and arguably a statute (the Hatch Act), but he cannot be punished by the president, even when a statute specifically authorizes the president to fire him? If the president fires him, it is Comey who made the U.S. look like a banana republic, not the president.
‘A kind of coup.’ A reader who identifies himself as a disabled Vietnam veteran sends a copy of his open letter to the president:
In my view, a Special Prosecutor should be created to investigate the FBI.
It would appear that an FBI in-house group of Republican political operatives staged a kind of coup and created a serious political crisis on the eve of the 2016 election. They did it deliberately and with the clear intent of affecting the election. Whether Director Comey knew about it or not is irrelevant (I suspect he did). The constitutional implications of this act are fundamental to the sanctity of our government. Nothing less.
Not since Gore/Bush in 2000 has a presidential election been so blatantly tampered with. It remains to be seen how the election will come out, but there is no doubt that the so-called “FBI letter” put a serious dent in Clinton’s sizable lead. According to Nate Silver (who I consider the most reliable source), her lead dropped from roughly 10 points to roughly 4 points. The actions of the FBI, including Comey, had a clear effect. [JF note: the Silver/538 model, which rated Trump’s chances lower than some other sources during the primaries, has consistently rated them higher than most others during the general election campaign. When the results are all in, the polling experts can figure out which approach worked out best in this extraordinary year.]
This is a gravely serious threat the security of the U. S. government and should be seen as such. We all have been pointed to the Russians, when all along the real tampering has come, once again, from our own Republican Party. Please take swift and strong action to expose this national security threat.
On the other hand. Another reader with a military background says that Comey took a difficult but unavoidable step:
I live in Maryland and am strongly supporting Clinton. However, I have friends and family who are adamant Trump supporters and who, with justification, believe the Clintons are not forthcoming about their dubious behavior, an issue that is hard to refute!
They believe the system is rigged. Had Comey not come out with his announcements prior to the election and had there been evidence of Clinton misconduct, what would have the reaction? Total belief on the part of Trump and his base that the system had been rigged—that the FBI held evidence back that would have elected Trump—confirming exactly what Trump had been saying!
Comey inoculated the country from that disaster! And it would have been a disaster!
Do you disagree that had Comey withheld the fact that he had more emails and it turned out that they contained inappropriate behavior by Secretary Clinton, that would have sparked widespread outrage, and right so! The fairness and legitimacy of the election would be challenged by the 48 percent of Americans who were Trump voters .
Frankly, I do not believe that the Washington media has little, if any, understanding of the Trump supporters! Frankly, I am stunned by them, I disagree strongly with them, but they are not stupid; they are concerned about the country. I had hope that your flight across the country would have provided some insight to the divisions of the country and the unfortunate passion with which those divisions are held.
To address this central part of the final reader’s argument: “The fairness and legitimacy of the election would be challenged by the 48 percent of Americans who were Trump voters.” First, he’s not going to get close to 48 percent of the vote. Even if he did, what I’ve seen convinces me that most or all of his real base would believe there was “an email problem” regardless of anything Director Comey ever said.
The email “scandal” is a very peculiar one. Hillary Clinton made a significant mistake in setting up the system to begin with, and for being so grudging about recognizing that. But as far as I can tell, it’s a mistake whose main victim is herself. I’m not aware of anyone demonstrating or even claiming specific harm to the national interest because of her email practices. Yet people who chant “lock her up” usually start with this on the bill of particulars.
Clinton should “go high” by keeping Comey. Here’s another reader with a somewhat sympathetic view of the FBI director (previous readers along those lines here):
Yes, Comey should resign, but I’m not sure that his resignation should be accepted. His sin—being obsessed with his reputation—is one of which the Founders (George Washington above all), not to mention all modern politicians, have been guilty. And many if not most of them typically go about tending to their reputations in far less salubrious ways than he has.
Justin Dillon is right: The original decision and announcement not to prosecute Clinton should have been made by AG Lynch and her lieutenants. That way anyone who believed that a Democratic AG had made a partisan decision to decline to prosecute her party’s nominee could have expressed their displeasure at the ballot box in November. We don’t know whether Comey tried to pass the buck to Lynch (as he should have), but if he did, it seems likely that such an attempt would have been rejected.
Instead, the FBI—and Comey personally, with his reputation for probity—were used as a kind of heat shield, like the protective layer which, with one tragic exception, kept the space shuttle astronauts safe during their re-entry into the atmosphere. Then the late-breaking emergence of the Wiener emails put Comey on an even nastier spot, especially with the “fifth column” of troglodytes in the Bureau that Wayne Barrett has described (thank you very much for that link) itching to inflict far greater damage on his reputation (a cover-up!) by leaking their preferred version of the story.
If Clinton and the country manage to survive Comey’s horribly clumsy attempt to salvage what remained of his reputation, refusing to accept his resignation would give her and her party a very visible opportunity to “go high.” She and they would undoubtedly be accused of rewarding Comey for his last-minute announcement re-exonerating her. However, these are career politicians and partisan operatives, and being criticized unfairly is a baked-in part of the gig that they signed up for.
Fix the (metaphorical) bayonets. From a reader who starts out agreeing with me that no one should fire Comey:
I think I agree with you on this. From a purely cerebral analysis, I’m sure I do. But all this norm smashing—as we’ve all been discussing for months—isn’t going to end just because Trump loses. Indeed, the Republican elected officials are going to be driven by a political constituency driven to madness to act in an increasingly undemocratic fashion during the Clinton II Presidency.
So, as you say, the Democrats have two choices. They can resist the (reasonable) impulse to act in kind, playing the adult in the room while the Republican burn down the house around them. Or they can—at least selectively—fight fire with fire and step outside the previously accepted norms of behavior in order to thwart at least some of the craziest Republican actions.
We already know we’ll be facing problems with appointments (not just judicial, don’t kid yourself), appropriations legislation, and perhaps most ominous of all, a renewed debt ceiling fight led by the most nihilistic politicians in recent memory.
I’m not sure which course I favor. I’d like to at least be proud of our actions, but there’s no doubt that American small-d democracy is in peril, and maybe it’s time to fix bayonets ...
I know from context that he means the last line metaphorically.
With his ill-advised intrusions into this year’s election, FBI Director James Comey has already damaged U.S. interests and the fabric of American democracy more grievously than even Hillary Clinton’s harshest critics could contend that her email-policies have done.
Damaged, how? I made the long-term case a week ago, after Comey’s reckless announcement about the Anthony Weiner emails. The shorter-term case is evident right now: No one can ever know how the 2016 election would have turned out—in ultimate victor, in margin and “mandate,” in the way specific states go, in down-ballot and Congressional effects—had it not been for Comey’s decision to put himself in the middle of charge and counter-charge.
We can’t ever know, because some 40 million people have already voted. We can’t ever know, because his latest last-minute announcement comes too late to be fully digested by the time everyone else votes on election day.
I have no reason to believe that Director Comey was operating out of base motives. He probably thought he was doing the right thing for the right reasons. But he was mistaken, and the results were damaging—to the country, to the political process, to the FBI and the Department of Justice, and to Comey himself.
In the hyper-litigious current political realm, the usual next step would be hearings and investigations—hearings like those on the deaths at Benghazi, investigations like the endless ones on email. American public life at the moment is all too hearings-bound and criminalization-crazy. Hearings or investigations into whatever has happened at the FBI would not be worth it for anyone.
So what, instead?
Hillary Clinton, if she wins, should not fire Director Comey. If she cares about the norms of governing, as she should and presumably does, she would realize that this would inescapably look like revenge and a purge.
For similar reasons, Barack Obama, who appointed Comey to this job in the first place, should not fire him. FBI directors are given 10-year terms precisely to insulate them from politics. Obama should observe the letter of that apolitical norm, even if Comey himself has not.
But as soon as the election is over, Obama should make clear, bully-pulpit style, what Comey has done wrong, and why Comey has tarnished his bureau’s reputation, lost Obama’s trust, and forfeited the public’s deference to his judgment.
And then, sometime soon, Comey should resign. He shouldn’t be fired, but if he cares about his institution and its values, he should recognize that his continued presence is an unavoidable source of continued harm.
Plus, he is sure to get a lucrative follow-on job.
We’ve had enough hearings and investigations. But this was a big and damaging mistake.
No one should fire Director Comey, because a firing would damage governing norms. But in defense of those norms, Director Comey should resign.
Two of my long-time, politically well-experienced friends have been in Nevada recently, doing get-out-the-vote work. Independently, each has just sent me a note saying that their experience and observations match what the Jon “the sage of Nevada” Ralston has been reporting: Namely, a huge surge in early voting among Democrats and especially Latinos in Nevada, which bodes very negatively for Donald Trump’s prospects there and by implication elsewhere.
I haven’t been in Nevada so can’t compare impressions first-hand. But I can say that based on what Deb and I have seen around the country in the past few months—in Central Valley and inland southern California, in western Kansas, in rust-belt Pennsylvania and Michigan, in both Mississippi and Alabama—I’ve been preparing for the least surprising “surprise” of election day. Namely, “surprisingly” high turnout among Latino voters, which will play a “surprisingly” important part in sparing the country and the world a Donald Trump presidency, if in fact we are to be spared.
The surprise factor depends on Latinos across the country being more deeply offended by everything about Trump’s campaign, from “they’re rapists” onward—and being more determined to show up and vote than their past often-low turnout rates might have indicated or (the surprise part) than this year’s polling may fully capture. I’m not a pollster, but all the anecdotal and reportage evidence we’ve come across supports both halves of this equation. People are really (and rightly) offended. And they are really determined to make their views known.
(I’m prepared for a similar “surprise” in the margin from women voters but don’t know of early-voting results that yet give such indications.)
I’ve argued for years, for instance here and here, that the long-term secret of American greatness is its ability to draw on an outsized share of the world’s talent, entrepreneurial creativity, culture, heart, and general human genius through its openness to people of many races and backgrounds. Latino Americans have long had higher-than-average rates of service and sacrifice in the U.S. military. In 2016, they may be defending American freedoms in another way.
A reader in New York writes about the way he is casting his vote. He also asks a question, for which my answer is below.
From the reader:
As a two-time Obama voter and Obama fan, I am not at all enthusiastic about HRC and plan to vote Gary Johnson to register my unease with her. Your views on Trump are well known, but I would like to know: what do you think of HRC, not as an alternative to Trump per se—who’s obviously so much worse—but as an affirmative choice for president?
Put another way, if you set aside the idea of influencing the outcome / blocking Trump and instead focus on voting as an act of affirmation, do you actively support HRC despite her flaws and why? Do you think we should feel good that she will be president? I have seen no evidence of her having “learned” from past ethical missteps or foreign policy misjudgments. My own views are below, and I see three main negatives in HRC.
Her poor judgment and paranoid streak (see: email fiasco) are not just unappealing, but undermine her effectiveness when they blow up in her face. This pattern will continue into her presidency.
The nexus of public service and personal enrichment known as Clinton Inc., regardless of whether it rises to the level of actual corruption. (That they’ve figured out how to land just shy of criminality almost makes the whole thing worse.)
Her foreign policy will be conventionally hawkish, with all the unnecessary / counterproductive use of resources that entails. Her presidency will be paralyzed domestically by unprecedentedly fierce opposition, so foreign policy will be the only arena where she can demonstrate “effectiveness.” This increases the risk of ill-conceived misadventures abroad for the sake of “doing something”—e.g. I expect the U.S. will be dragged into a morass in Syria that Obama has largely resisted. Her clearly telegraphed Syria policy will cost a lot of money; American servicemen will die; and it will worsen terrorist blowback from the Middle East. And this is to say nothing about new crises she’ll be faced with.
These negatives bother me very much—but they’re livable.
The negatives against Trump are overwhelming and intolerable, and stem only partly from his policies (which I do believe will be worse for America). Cracking down on immigration, banning Muslims or “extreme vetting” of foreign visitors, trade protectionism, massive unfunded tax cuts, haircutting the national debt—all of these will be worse for the country IMO….
But I’m even more swayed by Trump’s farcically, outrageously unfit temperament for the presidency. As prolifically chronicled in his Twitter feed, in the context of the U.S. presidency, Trump is a man of unprecedented pettiness, vulgarity, sensitivity to perceived slights, and emotional immaturity.
Yes, Clinton’s administration will be 50%+ preoccupied with fending off sundry investigations, inquiries, commissions, inquests, and controversies—some her own fault, others concocted by detractors. But President Trump will be 50%+ preoccupied with obsessively reading his own press, answering slights, and settling a continuous flow of spats, feuds, arguments, tizzies, vendettas, quarrels, and brouhahas—whether with b-list celebrities like Rosie O’Donnell and Alicia Machado, members of the press, bureaucrats and elected officials, or foreign leaders.
Why is that significant? Because it’s a near-certainty that he will re-purpose the powers of the presidency in general—most ominously including the U.S. military—as a vehicle for settling disputes, saving face, getting the last word, and asserting dominance. And he’ll be equally pliable by flatterers and favor-curriers, within his administration or without, domestic or foreign—including foreign despots much cleverer, more strategic than he is.
His decisions will be guided by emotion, vanity, and ego first, and a rigorous calculation of the national interest only a distant second. Not because he wants them to be, but becausehe can’t help it. By its very nature, this setup makes it literally impossible to predict what those decisions may be, except that they will bear only an incidental relation to what’s best for the country.
With Clinton, you know what you’re getting: a basically conventional policy offering—left of center domestically, relatively hawkish and interventionist abroad—combined with likely ethical and/or legal lapses; an unhealthy degree of secrecy / paranoia; probably some fresh embarrassments courtesy of Bill’s sex addiction (which I assume is alive and well); and maybe even health problems of some severity.
But the negatives are known and bounded. Either she has a decent, effective, scandal-free presidency; or she engages in various scandals, whether or not she gets away with it. But that’s the range of outcomes. Not all are desirable, but all are survivable. She may well blow up her presidency, sure—but what could she conceivably do that would be catastrophic not just to her legacy, but to the country? HRC’s range of outcomes is between “tolerable” and “pretty shitty,” with a non-zero if remote chance of “good.”
With Trump, we have no idea what we’re getting. The range of outcomes is unbounded and skewed to the negative. He could be great—one of the best. He could be Reagan Redux, as some have hoped. But he could also be catastrophic. Almost nothing is too far-fetched, too fantastical, to put in the realm of possibility. He could be the most negatively consequential president of the post-war era. Why not, given that he gets into 3 a.m. Twitter feuds with 1990s Venezuelan beauty queens while ostensibly running for president?
Forget about his hucksterism, his profound vulgarity and tackiness, his trail of credible sexual assault accusers, his policy ignorance and lack of curiosity… All bad things, but the dispositive issue for me is the signature Trump constellation of vindictiveness, vainglory, impulsiveness, and an ultra-fragile sense of pride. He could offer the best set of policies imaginable, and it wouldn’t matter. Those traits alone still make him a gamble that neither the status quo nor the many flaws of HRC are so bad as to justify.
So, if I’m casting the deciding vote, there is no contest: in this particularly loathsome election, HRC is the only sound choice. Thankfully, I’m not in that position and I do consider a third party vote a perfectly honorable thing to do in this cycle.
Like the reader, I vote in a jurisdiction whose Electoral College result is not in question—for him, New York; for me, D.C. Unlike him, I think it’s important to cast a vote for one of the two candidates with a chance of becoming president, which in my case means voting for Hillary Clinton.
I didn’t write TheAtlantic’s unusual (third time in 159 years) editorial endorsing Clinton, but I agree with its logic. Essentially: Hillary Clinton is a candidate of clear strengths and some very well-known weaknesses. Her foreign policy instincts and record are more hawkish than I would choose, which is the main reason I preferred Barack Obama in the Democratic primary eight years ago. In principle, it would be better if two families, Bush and Clinton, had not supplied four out of five successive presidents, which will be the case if she wins. But also in principle, it is long past time to have a female president, and if it doesn’t happen now it could be quite a while.
Most of all, as the reader points out, her weaknesses are known. Apart from a million such discussions from other people, I wrote about them recently here and here. There’s zero risk they’ll go undetected. There is a non-zero chance she might adjust and learn.
In contrast, her strengths have been taken for granted or under-appreciated. For evidence I’ll rest my case on these past three debates, since I’ve written so much about them. In terms of knowledge, she was never at a loss. In terms of poise and under-stress self-control, she had it while her adversary manifestly did not. (“Such a nasty woman.”) In terms of strategic planning, she had a plan and carried it out, as opposed to Brownian Motion on the other side. And all of this, “backwards and in high heels”-fashion, while dealing with judgments of her as a “shrill” or “harsh” woman that would not have been made of a man.
She was popular with her colleagues of both parties when she was in the Senate. She had a sky-high public popularity rating when she was Secretary of State:
As president she would do some things that I, personally, would be enthusiastic about, and others I would not like. But in all cases, from my perspective, she would be competent, intelligent, and serious about the job.
Since the real-world alternative is a someone who is ignorant, impetuous, and contemptuous of both the rules and traditions on which our democracy is based, with no hesitation I say: vote for her, and work out the problems later on. They’re the kind of problems our political system is supposed to cope with. The alternative is a problem for the system itself (as Conor Friedersdorf has argued here).
And to my taste, the third-party alternative of saying “Oh, there’s something wrong with them both, I’ll vote for this other person” is wrong on the merits (Gary Johnson has his obvious weaknesses) and also in its long-term implications. Hillary Clinton, with her strengths and flaws, is the alternative to Donald Trump six days from now. Voting for her is a recognition of that reality; it adds to her popular vote as well as Electoral College strength, both of which matter for her (sure to be challenged) legitimacy; and it gives the voter better karmic standing to hold her accountable afterwards.
My vote in D.C. doesn’t “matter,” but it matters to me.
Fallows is swamped at the moment, partly to finish a cover story for our upcoming issue, so he passed along a ton of reader email with permission to post. (Thanks to everyone who has written him, as well as the general hello@ account, and we’re trying to post as many of the best emails as we can before Election Day.)
To start us off, a few readers find that the FBI director was put in a very difficult position following his agency’s July announcement that it would not recommend charges to the Justice Department against Clinton for her “extremely careless” use of emails. Comey was then lambasted in public before the House Oversight Committee and increasingly invoked in Trump’s pernicious “rigged” rhetoric on the campaign trail. This Fox News clip is a taste of things as they got started in July:
A reader suggests that Trump won by getting into Comey’s head:
It seems to me that the unfortunate way that Comey handled this situation was definitely a very clear-cut case of “working the refs.” Trump and his campaign have pushed so hard on the idea that everything is rigged—including the FBI—that when these potentially new emails came up, Comey lost his backbone and decided to cover his ass and show The Republicans that he was not rigged. Sort of like a make-up call in a big game.
It is an indictment of our current state of affairs in regards to normalizing Trump that despite the widespread pushback on Trump’s “rigged” talk, it still was not discredited outright enough by EVERYONE. If we had a normal candidate who accepted the system, then Comey would not have been feeling the pressure to prove he was not “rigged,” and he would have followed the 60-day tradition that has been in place for decades even if it meant taking some heat about it down the line.
This next reader has outright sympathy for Comey—pity even, given his apparent weakness in the face of Trumpism:
Fallows makes a number of good points in his thoughtful piece on falling norms. My problem here is that one of the “norms” that has fallen is “equal justice” under the law in this country. The real tragedy here for Comey and the country is the fact that he gave Mrs. Clinton a pass when it is obvious that she violated several laws [or at least federal records rules, which—speaking of the erosion of norms—started to be chipped away by Clinton’s predecessor, Colin Powell]. The idea that she should not have been prosecuted is not credible and polls of the American people make that clear. Opinion writers like Fallows seem to ignore this fact, which is why there is the current situation.
I feel bad for Mr. Comey, but he should have done the right thing in the first place.
Update from a reader who rebuts a sentence above:
“The idea that [Clinton] should not have been prosecuted is not credible and polls of the American people make that clear.” This is, in fact, the problem itself. In a society governed by law, you have to accept the verdict of law. You can criticize it and rail against it, push for legal reforms, but you should not and cannot question its legitimacy itself (one more norm broken).
In this case, if Comey (a Republican) reviewed all evidence and decided that there was not enough to prosecute, our “feelings” and “polls of American people” (unfortunately) don’t matter. A similar parallel is Black Lives Matter, where unless a verdict that is acceptable to the activists is not reached, the jury is racist and the system is corrupt. A more thoughtful viewpoint is that in view of the facts presented, the jury could not / did not reach a “guilty” verdict.
For Comey’s part, according to officials close to him, he felt both a sense of obligation to Congress and “a concern that word of the new email discovery would leak to the media and raise questions of a coverup”—though not as much “raise questions” as throw fuel on the Trump dumpster fire already raging for weeks.
This next reader, a lawyer in L.A., while no apparent fan of Trump, points a finger at the Clintons and their deep establishmentarianism:
As far as Comey, the entire process was politicized, and I suspect a careful review of the government’s prosecution history for these offenses will show that Clinton was the only one who was not prosecuted for her security breach. A FOIA request could show that. One can be a Democrat, and all that, or simply despise Trump for being the unaccomplished heir that he is, but can one really argue that Billary do not enjoy unprecedented treatment from their capture of the Democratic Party, or that the capture did not lead to her nomination and the FBI’s decision not to prosecute?
If there is no warrant to look at the emails, does that not mean that the FBI has not yet been able to articulate, even to the threshold of making a rational connection, that these new emails are connected to an offense? So the FBI is not yet in a position to make an argument to a judge, but the agency’s director is prepared to go straight to the public, 11 days before an election?
I am just a Canadian criminal prosecutor. We Canadians are not always the brightest bulbs, so I’m probably missing something. But I don’t quite understand why people don’t instantly see how outrageous this all is. I fear that you Americans are headed for a very dark place.
Buckle up, buckaroos. Here’s one more reader with some understanding of the difficult position the FBI director found himself in:
I’m far from an insider, but Comey from afar seemed to have a Boy Scout moment. My sense is he’s a complete man of the system, and as Jonathan Haidt showed, being responsible is a core value to conservatives. He felt a load of pressure, self imagined, and probably had a mini moral crisis. He’s probably, if not a hack, a life-long bureaucrat, who serves at others’ disposal and lacks a real sense of judgment or sense of psychology. It’s like the Book of Judges: In modern America, a random Republican in power will elect himself to steal the election—if not the Supreme Court, the head of the FBI.
I feel a sense of jaw-dropping dread, and Trump is going to play up the inevitability as charismatics do, and people are going to forget his idiocy and thuggishness. But logic—like that of Sam Wang at Princeton Election Consortium and the fact that there will be pushback for the monkeys in the middle to consider—leads me to believe that unless something really big comes up, Clinton will squeeze by. The likely worse outcome is that this will spur talk of impeachment and the illegitimacy of a Clinton regime.
This next reader raises an intriguing contrast between Comey and Gonzalo Curiel, the judge presiding over the Trump University case:
I find it interesting that Curiel chose to delay the trial until after the election so as not to influence it, and, I’m assuming, for there to be less potential influence on the integrity of the trial itself. I also find it interesting that it is the very same judge who Trump has lambasted in the media and accused of not being able to judge him fairly due to his race [and Curiel’s parents’ Mexican heritage]. Trump said Curiel should recuse himself or be removed from the case. I would have been delighted to see Trump on trial mid-election, but I felt wholeheartedly it was the correct decision, even though it very clearly benefits Trump.
Then, in stark contrast, we have Comey. His decision to release the statement saying there are new emails is bizarre and lacks logic. It seems to me there are two choices he has once he finds out about the emails, but both hinge on knowing what’s in the emails. The newest reports are saying the FBI had these for weeks prior to Comey’s bombshell. I just don’t understand how you don’t look at the emails or seek approval to look at the emails (via warrant) until 11 days before Election Day. His two choices should have been the following:
If he releases the statement, it is because there is new information that may or will result in prosecution. It’s pertinent information for voters to consider, so it should be released no matter the influence on the election, although precedent and policy seem to say this wouldn’t necessarily be enough justification to release the statement. But I at least could see why he felt an overwhelming need to make the statement.
If there’s no new information in the emails, then wait to release the statement until after the election. Wait to notify Congress because there’s no new info in the emails and any disclosure could sway the election unfairly.
Just as a side note, in an election that saw a number of firsts regarding mentions of sexual acts, parts, abuse, etc, this new email situation arose because of Wiener and his penis pictures. God help us.
“Arose,” ugh. Update from a reader, Kevin:
Let me posit two other possibilities behind Comey’s decision. First is that he is a supremely calculating bureaucrat, adept at self-preservation even if administratively incompetent. Given his failure to recommend action against candidate Clinton last July, Comey must know that his position as FBI director would be toast if Donald Trump, who had criticized him so bitterly, were to be elected. So Comey did Trump a solid based on no information. This explanation assumes that Comey is so naive as to believe that Trump holds any value to mutuality in any relationship—a position unsupported by the man’s history.
Comey must also have calculated that if Clinton were elected and fired him, it would certainly be considered grounds for impeachment by the atavistic GOP. Job insurance, Mafia-style.
The other explanation, which I favor most, is that Comey really is an adult Boy Scout and values his own reputation above all. But when does a fetish for reputation become ruinous? When it devolves into egoism and harms the long-term common good. Comey confused a tactical buttressing of his reputation for his position in history, which I cannot believe is going to be favorable.
You might ask your colleague Fallows about a great decision by an American president who sacrificed his reputation for the long-term good. In 1979, Jimmy Carter appointed Paul Volcker as his Federal Reserve Board chair with an explicit mandate to tame inflation by any means necessary. Volcker’s extreme tight-money policies caused a sharp and prolonged recession and high unemployment—but it did bring inflation down (the collapse of OPEC unity did help as well). Carter’s replacement, the perennially overrated and intrinsically dishonest Ronald Reagan, trashed Carter, blaming him for the unemployment (but taking credit of course for the slashing of inflation).
Carter’s reputation—as a president, if not as a human being—has never really recovered. But it is undeniable that he set the course for several decades’ worth of a sustainable economy. Comey’s egoism and short-termism may just have set the course for a constitutional dark age in this country.
Zooming out a bit from the Comey controversy, several more readers offer insight and supplemental reading on the broader themes of American politics that Fallows explored in “James Comey and the Destruction of Norms.” He called this email from a reader “well argued” when he passed it along to me:
The word “norms” is a squishy word; it sounds like an abbreviation of normal, mixed in with resonances of a first name shouted at someone who walks into the bar in Cheers. It lacks any immediate sense of purpose or consequence, almost as if it merely applied to manners or political correctness. It’s one thing for you to say that norms are important to democracy, but just saying that doesn’t communicate an understanding of why or how important they are.
Norms are structural. They create the framework within which we operate. They define up and down, and left and right. They establish what is good behavior and bad behavior. And they are absolutely necessary for democratic institutions to function. They are understood and honored because people recognize the dire consequences of violating them.
Deadlines are governed by the clock—unless someone cynically stops the clock to keep the deadline from passing. The Senate operates on majority rule—unless one party, routinely employing the filibuster, decides that it doesn’t. The Constitution requires advice and consent on appointments—unless one party, in a naked exercise of raw power, decides that it doesn’t. And if one party can make that decision, what’s the point of having a Constitution?
Norms are enforced by the community, not by law. In government they are enforced by the political parties and, ideally, the press. But the Republican party, as you pointed out, has been breaching norms for some time. A party responsible for the functioning of the Constitution has been undermining the very norms it is charged to uphold. And when half of the community fails to enforce norms, then, by definition, the norms are gone—unless the press clearly and loudly points out that the norms are not being enforced. And, except in some small pockets of the press world, that hasn’t happened.
And this is the most significant press failure. By false equivalence, and the moral relativism of “he said and the other guy said,” without reference to the non-normative behavior of one of the parties, the press has allowed norms to be washed away like a sand castle at high tide. Norms are made out of sand—they are illusory—because they’re only effective if the parties share in, and enforce, the illusion. And our institutions, indeed our democracy, cannot function without them.
Republicans have established new norms for a party out of presidential power. If the Democrats take up those norms should they lose the White House, we well never, ever, be able to function. And we will have Trumpism incarnate: He or she who can wield raw power, without consideration of norms, will prevail. And the American people will be the last consideration on the table.
This next reader looks to the intellectual forefather of American conservatism, Edmund Burke, whose lessons seem completely lost on Republicans these days—not to mention completely shredded by Donald Trump. His disdain for political norms and institutions during this election should give contemporary liberals more appreciation for Burke, a philosopher they might have ignored otherwise:
Your discussion of the importance of norms in government reminded me of a comment on the French revolutionaries (so similar in many ways to Donald Trump) by Edmund Burke, on whom I did my M.A. thesis. About their inclination to transgressive behavior, Burke wrote:
Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
For most of us, most of the time, that “controlling power” involves our internalization of norms that support civil society—exactly the norms whose wholesale violation you have chronicled. What Burke is saying is that when those norms are discarded, society will have to fall back on enforced external controls, turning custom into law and regulation, if it is to survive. By discarding the norms we have voluntarily observed, we will bring ourselves under forceful compulsion. Our passions will have forged our fetters.
Another reader looks to a classic book by a classical liberal:
Over the past week I have been rereading de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. In it he emphasizes the importance of custom in regulating a democracy. Trash the norms and you begin the process of destroying our experiment in responsible self-rule. I don’t know if James Comey was acting as a partisan hack, covering his ass, or just being stupid, but he should be made to pay for the damage he has done. This election is simply awful and he has just made it that much more so.
Another reader looks to literature:
Whatever HRC has done, she’s still more trustworthy, intelligent, and competent than Trump, but for the past 20 or so years of teaching The Great Gatsby, I keep seeing the Clintons in Nick Carraway’s summation, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy, they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
And another introduces a new book:
I’m sure you are getting enough junk traffic on stuff like this. So, a link:
Harvard historian James T. Kloppenberg’s latest book Toward Democracy lays out a distinctive vision of democracy—one that stresses not institutions or practices, but what he calls “an ethical ideal.” The essence of democracy isn’t one man, one vote. It isn’t majority rule. And it isn’t the principle of political representation. Rather, it lies in the combination of individual autonomy and an “ethic of reciprocity.” In other words, a willingness to think in other people’s shoes and act accordingly, a political version of the golden rule. If such ideals seem practically utopian in today’s climate, for Kloppenberg that is an indication of just how badly democracy has lost its way.
Another reader teaches us a new word:
An alternative explanation of the Trump campaign has kept urging itself forward to me. It requires a little background for some.
Ethnomethodology is a part of sociology that purports to be theory-free, or at least theory-neutral, concerned with identifying rules within a social group rather than figuring out what model the group fits. One of the research methods for ethnomethodologists is a breaching study, in which the researchers identify important norms in a group by participating in the group and systematically violating various observed norms. The responses of the group members to the breaches reveal the importance of the norms.
Is it possible that the entire Republican presidential campaign has been an ethnomethodology research project? How else do we explain the unprecedented series of breached norms (as you have noted in your Time Capsules)?
This reader digs up another time capsule of sorts:
In a letter to Joshua Speed dated August 24, 1855, Abraham Lincoln famously wrote:
I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring that “all men are created equal”. We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be take pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.
As president he would display charity in many ways, and sometimes give expression to it in religious themes. He would show magnanimity to rivals and critics, mercy to the accused, patience with insolent generals, eloquent sympathy to the bereaved, generosity to associates and subordinates, nonvindictiveness to enemies. He would explicitly disavow planting thorns, malicious dealing, holding grudges.
Two human beings more different than Lincoln and Trump can scarcely be imagined. Our current “progress in degeneracy” is indeed pretty rapid.
Lastly, a reader in Vermont tries to end on an optimistic note:
Thank you to Fallows for his reports from across the country showing how people are making things work. The professional dog-biter circus that goes for national politics needs to be documented, but it gets to be a bit much after a while. Whether or not it is true, at this point it is not that hard to believe that a major force in this campaign is that Trump was honey-trapped by the Russians. As it is, both Trump and the Russians would enjoy fouling the bed of American politics. They are both intent on profiting from a bitter, divided America.
Yesterday I mentioned a social-media analysis showing that 35 percent of active Trump supporters on Twitter (versus less than one-tenth of one percent of Clinton supporters) followed prominent “white nationalist” Twitter feeds, like @DrDavidDuke.
Now readers respond. First, what I’ll simply call a dissent, from a reader in South Carolina:
Your article on White Nationalists is disgusting and irresponsible and does not even rise to the level of journalism.
I am a Trump supporter and surprisingly NOT a Russian bot, a white nationalist, or an anti-Semite. I vote for Trump not because I think he’s a great politician, but because I cannot allow Hillary Clinton destroy America with her failed and deadly policies.
I vote for Trump to keep Hillary out. Plus, it is obvious to me and many others that Trump cares deeply about America as a country—Hillary cannot say the same.
Quit reducing patriotic Americans who cannot abide the thought of Hillary Clinton in the White House to ridiculous stereotypes. We are people who love America and do not wish to see it destroyed by her harmful policies. Disgraceful piece of work. I will no longer be reading the hate-mongering that goes on at The Atlantic.
Noted. After the jump, a different sort of response from a successful advanced-tech entrepreneur in the industrial Midwest who sent in the photo at the top of this item.
That something like “white supremacy” as conscious action would still exist is incredibly sad ...
But sometimes when I hear of “white nationalist” groups or other peculiar views of human diversity, I think about how strange it would be to have “brunette supremacists” or “green-eyed supremacists” or something equally ridiculous. How about “freckled nationalist”? I feel particularly aggrieved by people born in July, so perhaps an “October supremacist” group would be an appropriate response.
This time when I read your latest post I couldn’t help thinking of a white deer I saw recently near a place in Wisconsin where we have a small log cabin in the woods. I felt really lucky to see her since I had heard of many sightings this summer nearby.
When I saw her, she froze in position as if I wouldn’t notice—like any other (color) deer would. The part I marvel at is that she seems entirely unaware she is white and easily visible!
If only we could all be that way.
What I do love about this photo, as the reader suggests, is the obvious-once-you-point-it out unselfconsciousness of the white deer, who imagines that she is as camouflaged as the practically invisible one in the rear. This has larger implications about self-perception and real-vs-imagined differences, which I will leave to each reader to fill in.
Offered for the record as samples of opinion in this varied land, nine days before the election.
Vehement Trump supporters abound on Twitter. That much is obvious to anyone who has used the service. Who exactly they are, and how broad a swath of society they represent, has been harder to pin down.
Are they largely Russian bots, as some reports have suggested? Are the angriest ones really just a handful of activists, racists, and anti-Semites, who through nonstop posting in multiple accounts exaggerate their true numbers? (Though even a very few would be enough.) Are they in any kind of coordinated activity, or mainly working as loners?
A social-media analytics firm called Demographics Pro has released an analysis of 10,000 Trump supporters who are active on Twitter, and 10,000 Hillary Clinton supporters. It then matched those accounts with a list of 10 active, major white-nationalist Twitter accounts. (The company describes the way in which it chose and classified such sites here.)
What were the results? They’re shown on the chart above. Of the 10,000 Clinton followers, a total of 16 followed one or more of the major white-nationalist accounts, the likes of @DrDavidDuke and so on. Of the 10,000 Trump supporters, a total of 3,549—well over one-third—followed the white nationalists.
Following an account doesn’t necessarily make you an adherent. I follow @DrDavidDuke myself, along with several others on the list. But the disproportion here, while it doesn’t answer all questions about Trump Twitter world, suggests something about its nature.
A similar Demographics Pro analysis, of the overlap between conspiracy-theory sites and Trump supporters, is here.
In my my article on this year’s presidential debates, I pointed out that these high-drama election-year rituals seem important to mere citizens and journalists. But political scientists have long claimed there’s no proof that they’ve actually changed presidential election results.
Maybe they’ll say something different when this year’s results are in. At face value, it certainly appears that the first Clinton-Trump debate—a month ago today—marked a clear shift in Hillary Clinton’s favor and against Donald Trump.
Below is a screenshot of the timeline for the “polls-plus” prediction of the election’s outcome, from FiveThirtyEight. I’ve added the big black arrow to mark the first debate. The thinner vertical lines to the right are the other two debates, each one of which went badly for Trump and, from this chart, seemed to reinforce Clinton’s lead.
For one more way to look at this question, which is less immediately obvious in graphic terms but cumulatively more convincing, please check out this recent tweet-storm by the U. Michigan economist Justin Wolfers.
He tested the debates-matter hypothesis in an ingenious way, by tracking the movement of financial and futures markets while the first debate was actually underway. As the debate wore on, Wolfers found, a wide variety of markets quickly adjusted to the levels they would have if Hillary Clinton became president. For instance, during the debate the Mexican peso rose sharply in value, based on the declining likelihood that U.S.-Mexico trade would be disrupted by a Wall or other limits under a President Trump.
The point of the study, again, was that the back-and-forth of the debate, in itself, convinced people placing financial bets that Donald Trump was not going to become president. They adjusted their financial bets accordingly.
Prediction markets are obviously fallible; in the most famous recent case, they missed the Brexit vote. And financial markets as a whole tend to overreact to short-term news. But together with the longer-term polling trends, Wolfers’s study may reinforce the hypothesis I mentioned a week ago: that this time, the debates really have mattered.
Yesterday, in installment #148 of the time capsules, I contrasted circa-2008 videos of a (comparatively) thoughtful-sounding Donald Trump with the splenetic buffoon we see today, and asked, What happened?
Readers offer three hypotheses.
1) You’re fooling yourself. There’s no change. From a reader in California:
I differ with your take on Trump’s comments about the movie. (Caveat: I have a serious problem watching film at all.) I’m not interested in cinematography, never mind Trump’s views of same. However, your statement, “For any rich person to say these things about the movie would be something,” is simply mistaken. Trump isn’t saying anything about “the movie.” He’s riffing on his own self-absorbed impressions of wealth, women, and personal relationships. He makes one bland remark about the camera’s emphasis on the extent of the table ...
In sum, “this other Trump” is not by a stretch another Trump. He’s the same Trump, but at the time one who wasn’t running for POTUS.
FWIW, what struck me about Trump’s “Rosebud” comments was not his assessment of Citizen Kane as a film itself but rather his allusions to the distancing effects of wealth. Through the past year, we’ve heard him say “I’m really rich!” (or used to, back in the “self-funding” days). We still hear him say “I’m so smart” and “I have the greatest temperament.” It’s a different tone in these clips.
2) It’s a change, but on purpose. From another reader:
What happened? This has been my theory from day one: Trump the movie critic, the wheeler-dealer, as well as the X-rated media guru, is the genuine article, while Trump the religious, pro-life, GOP conservative, redneck, Tea Partier ... is fake.
An act. A stunt. A last gasp for something big before its too late ... that somehow won a primary ... then two ... then the nomination.
Nobody was more shocked than he was.
He is a lifelong New Yorker, city slicker, playboy, Democrat ... now playing a character from rural Mississippi(?) ... or West Virginia. Other days he’s Archie Bunker, in a one-man play, on stage. The crowd loves him!
He’s done enough of these stump speeches that he can probably do them in his sleep. But the pro-gun (bwaahaha!) Trump is kinda like me singing in the shower: not my real voice, out of tune, probably haven’t really studied the lyrics.
More proof for my theory: Go back and look at the stuff that leaked out after his meeting with the New York Times editorial board. He basically said, “Can you guys believe this? I’ve got them eating out of my hands!” (And “Oh, and about those illegal immigrants, meh. Whatever. We’ll figure something out later.”)
3) It’s a change, and not on purpose. An assessment that is downbeat in a different way:
The answer, I suspect, to your question in #148 is ... age.
I’ve become increasingly suspicious of opinion that doesn’t take this into account. We would all like lives lived to four score and ten without any diminishment, and that happens regularly now, but those who remain acute and fully engaged for six score or more are rare no matter how much we would all like to join the club.
The increasingly demented things that Trump says are, er, well, demented and do not come from the hormone-ridden enthusiasms of an uncontrolled 30 year old; they come from a 70 year old. He remembers what the 30 year old was like, believes he is the same incarnate, and wants to make his mark on history as the end approaches. It is clear he now has no control of his expression on a stage where his (putative) wealth and its implied authority and a very long time before the public eye can have disastrous consequences.
Take your pick; elements of truth in all of these, I think. Also, on the “Rosebud” question in the conventional sense, of what makes Trump the way he is, please check out this fascinating NYT piece by Michael Barbaro on Trump’s longstanding and powerful dread of public humiliation or loss of status. (And ironically enough, the result of this campaign ... )
Twelve days and some hours to go. Tax returns still not released. Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus still on board, saying Make This Man POTUS!
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
So wrote W.H. Auden in his immortal poem September 1, 1939. Today, two weeks before Election Day, is nowhere near as dark. Liars with buildings that grope are still a scourge, but America’s anti-authoritarian immune system seems to be working: Donald Trump’s poll numbers look dismal and he was humiliated by his elite peers at the Al Smith Dinner. The admittedly lame neologism Trumplosion has been coined.
But we should not be incautious; the votes aren’t in yet. The philosophy of rational pessimism dictates that we assume the worst, so we can only ever be surprised positively. And even if the teetotalitarian at the top of the Republican ticket loses big on November 8, we still have to reckon with the meaning of Trumpism and how it could still threaten social stability and U.S. democracy. The latest Atlantic reader to reckon with this, Hannah, continues our discussion over “Ur-Fascism”:
So much has happened in the last week that by now this must seem like a blast from the past, but I wanted to bring in another attempt at articulating the fascist minimum, and to respond to/rebut/complain about your reader Kevin’s email about fascism in the Trail of Tears note. In The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert Paxton, one of the foremost scholars in the field, gives a list of essential characteristics of a fascist movement. Paxton’s list overlaps to a certain extent with Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascism, but it places more emphasis on the coherence of the group identity:
a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it;
the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;
dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;
the need for authority by natural leaders, always male, culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny;
the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;
the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success;
the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group's prowess within a Darwinian struggle.
Much of this list certainly sounds like the Trumpists, but where they diverge is in the coherence of the group identity. The old fascists described this in ethnonationalist terms, where there were Aryans or Italians or whatnot under attack from foreign infiltrators. There were clear cultural programs and, at least in the case of the Nazis, obsessive attempts at defining who was in and who was out.
We hear a lot from The Donald about foreign infiltrators and those who are not in the group—Muslims, illegals, Mexicans, illegal Mexican Muslims—but the group is never clearly defined, perhaps because he is trying to win a general election and needs some sort of cover of inclusivity, or perhaps because American history is too messy to allow a clear definition. A good example of this group incoherence is his rhetorical approach to Black Americans: he doesn’t treat them as full members of the group, but he presents them to his supporters as people in need of his help who might, in time, become fully a part of the group if only they could realize that he is the man for the job. Furthermore, the fascists attempted to unify all social classes under the broad umbrella of the group, whereas Trump’s rhetoric cynically takes advantage of class conflict between arugula-munching Beltway elites like myself and what some people call flyover country.
Now for reader Kevin. He only chooses to list fascist movement that gained a foothold in government, ignoring various French, British, Nordic, and American fascisms that never managed to rise above the level of a street movement. His (very questionable) choice to exclude Nazis serves his thesis insofar as it allows him to cherrypick fascisms that arose in constitutional monarchies, but he isn’t even consistent about this: The Latin American countries he wants to include in the list of fascist regimes didn’t have monarchs. Likewise he fails to mention the Ustasha and other Eastern European and Balkan fascist movements. The Latin American examples do not stand up very well anyway: Most were simple military dictatorships without themes of national rebirth or collectivist ideologies. Franco is a borderline case, since he displaced both fascist and republican factions in aftermath of the Spanish Civil War.
Obviously I do ultimately agree with Kevin that Trump is not a full-fledged fascist, if he is moving us not a few goose-steps further down the primrose path. The traits he describes as Jacksonian (welfare chauvinism and expansionism driven by a petit-bourgeois base) fit nicely at the overlap in the Venn diagram of Trumpism and fascism, but fascism was openly revolutionary. What opposition Trump has shown to democratic ideals and institutions is opportunistic, incoherent, and sporadic rather than ideologically rooted, and he does not himself call for national rebirth through violent overthrow of a corrupt republican order (although some of his followers do).
The effect of Trump’s attacks on the integrity of the voting process is of course antidemocratic, but so far it has been expressed in terms of concern for the integrity of a supposedly corrupted democratic system rather than as a blanket condemnation of democracy itself. The absence of something like the squadristi or the SA follows from this absence of coherent ideological opposition to liberal democracy. If you're looking for the real fascists, they're to be found in the ranks of the West Coast Straussians and the Silicon Valley neoreactionaries.
Of course, given Trump’s promise to keep us in suspense, it remains to be seen what will happen when he loses.
Everybody in this reader thread has mentioned the absence of a squadristi equivalent, and it’s an apt point. But we know Trump is not above encouraging mob violence, and that he wants a massive, armed federal force at his command. Now, with his prospects dimming, the chit-chattering classes are handwringing over his antidemocratic threat to reject the results of the election. They are probably over-hyping the danger, if not the irresponsibility, of Trump’s comments. One more cool-headed take floating around is that if on November 9th he begins singing the song of revolution, calling for an angry mob in defeat, supporters will simply ignore the cooing (so to speak) and not show up.
The task of placing Trump in the frame of evil historical movements is complicated by the reality of his campaign. Like Jackson, he wants to smash the prevailing American leadership culture and drive huge groups of brown people south. He fits the Fascist paradigm even more closely—specifically because it makes him a bad Jacksonian that despite the Fortress America bluster he does not seem hugely concerned with protecting the U.S. from meddling by foreign powers. As a fascist movement, though, Trumpism is a weak one. He neglected to organize the wannabe blackshirts who coalesce around him, and he outsourced the job of delegitimizing the democratic process (to either Russia or an Australian residing in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, depending on whom you ask). He has, in other words, all the aspirations and temptations and neuroses of a fascist demagogue, but he hasn't been able to put together a fascist’s methods for achieving power.
Events may have given us the answer to the great definitional question of Trumpism Theory, and it's not that complicated after all: Donald Trump is an incompetent fascist.
The final verse of Auden’s masterpiece:
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the
Just Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Update from Kevin:
I read, with a combination of dismay and amusement, reader Hannah’s exposition as to whether Trump can be classified a fascist. Maybe it’s my competitive nature, but I simply have to answer the charges leveled against me of “cherrypicking” examples of fascist governments, and also her assertion that it is “very questionable” to exclude Nazi Germany from a list of identifiably fascist governments.
First, my examples of European countries that became fascist in the 1920s and 1930s is heavily weighted toward constitutional monarchies because so many European countries started the interwar period as constitutional monarchies. (The notable exceptions were corporatist Portugal and the semi-presidential Third French Republic; the latter did not become fascist.) They also were almost all Catholic, the outlier being Romania, which was predominantly Orthodox, but where the national church still collaborated closely with the fascists. The Croatian Ustaše was also unusual, having a puppet government of distinctly Nazi-like ideology (racial eliminationism) while resembling fascism in maintaining a deep entanglement with officials of the national Catholic church. Both the genuinely fascist Austrian government and the sometimes fascist Hungarian government (depending on the prime minister) were overthrown by actual Nazis, the former having already seen a fascist chancellor assassinated by them. When Admiral Horthy of Hungary tried to withdraw from the Axis in 1944, Germany and its Arrow Cross collaborators overthrew his government and installed a puppet state. One of its first acts was to deport 400,000 Jews to Auschwitz and their deaths.
Hungary and Austria illustrate an essential difference between fascism and National Socialism. Racism, particularly eliminationist racism, was not intrinsic to the fascist political system, and the actual treatment of minorities such as Jews largely reflected the traditional conditions of a particular nation. For the fascists, the state was to be the center of all public and private action, and while the individual was to be subordinated to the state, there wasn’t necessarily an ethnic prerequisite for inclusion. For Hitler, race was everything, and every institution, including the state, was to be subordinated to the interest of the Volk. In addition, actual fascisms, in their drive to regain a legendary lost greatness, attached at least a nostalgic and often practical power to such ancien régime institutions as church, monarchy, and military general staff. Attachment to (usually Catholic) Church thought also led to the acceptance and codification of class distinctions along the model of Catholic corporatism—a tradition reaching back through Aquinas to Paul the Apostle (in First—not One—Corinthians).
Fascism was therefore deeply conservative and reactionary. Hitler, in stark contrast, was a radical, rejecting all traditional hierarchies and all elites. His New Germany was to abolish all social classes: the sole unifying force was to be the Aryan race, with all other races regarded as threatening.
Another important difference between Hitler’s National Socialism and fascism was that the Nazi philosophy was arguably not imperialist (because of very limited geographical ambitions) nor even conventionally nationalistic. After all, the race—the Volk—was the thing, not the unnatural construct of the nation-state.
I’ve thought some more on why there are no Trumpist squadristi. Hannah seems to ascribe this to Trump’s ideological incoherence and incompetence. This will not do; the man is far more politically competent than we give him credit for. I’ve come to the conclusion that the Trump campaign needs no stormtroopers, and that in fact their presence would do the campaign harm.
Leave aside the image of a mass of 65 year olds in black shirts—an image straight out of an absurd and disturbing Monty Python sketch. Whatever Trump’s deficiencies in intellect, learning, or discipline, the man is an undisputed media genius. Cable news has long been used to enforce political conformity. Trump’s masterly use of cable and social media has absorbed the technique into the very fabric of a national political campaign. He’s also media-savvy enough to know that realtime images of stormtroopers roaming the streets, beating up Mexicans, Muslims, and journalists would prove instantly fatal to his campaign.
Finally we come to Professor Robert Paxton, the renowned scholar of fascism cited by Hannah. Putting it bluntly, Paxton’s famous book on the subject gets it mostly wrong. He makes several grave errors. There is the usual mistake of lumping National Socialism with Italian fascism. (He dismisses all governments other than these two as not fully fascist.) Paxton’s list of qualities defining fascist regimes implies a racialism that is at the essence of Nazism, but not of Italian and most other fascisms. The five historical stages he insist truly fascist governments must achieve are artificial and reductive, recalling such discredited historicisms as Spengler’s or Marx’s. His analysis is also ahistoric, sometimes relying anachronisms and even flipping the actual roles of the influencer and the influenced among nations. Most importantly, like most academics working in a Western secular milieu, Paxton badly understates the importance of institutional religion in the development of social organizations.
It is inexcusable, for example, that the index of The Anatomy of Fascism includes no entry for Novarum rerum, the 1891 papal encyclical which defined modern Catholic corporatism, nor of Pope Leo XIII, its author. There is, surprisingly, a very short mention of another Leo: Leo Frank, the Atlanta Jewish industrialist who was notoriously lynched in 1915, and another mention of a related topic, the Ku Klux Klan, which was revived at Atlanta in the immediate wake of the Frank case. (Not, as popular lore would have it, because of the premiere of Birth of a Nation.) Here is a prime example of Paxton writing ahistorically and munging up ideological influences.
Paxton sees the Klan, founded in 1865, as “the earliest phenomenon that can be functionally be related to fascism,” not only in America, but in the world. Is this what Hannah seeks when looking for American examples of fascism? If so, she is wrong, and so is Paxton. Fascism was inconceivable in 1865; even in 1915 it existed only in the minds and writings of European antiliberal political philosophers such as Charles Maurras and Georges Sorel. But Jacksonianism had already enjoyed a long run in America, and it completely explains the racism and nativism of the Klan and the antisemitism, antimodernism, and anti-elitism of Frank’s murderers.
To hyperbolize Trump by force-fitting affinity with the fascists (or the Nazis, for that matter) is to make a dangerous misdiagnosis; it also does a disservice to the memory of the individuals who suffered under those regimes. The more immediate danger is it exoticizes Trump as he were a phenomenon outside normal American history. This may be comforting to Americans, because it allows us to forget the great violence Jacksonian populism has done to the country. But like Jackson, Trump is one of us.
Kellyanne Conway strains her talents to justify her boss’s preemptive refusal to accept Election Day results by comparing it to the 2000 contested recount in Florida and somehow putting the blame on Gore:
A reader, Don, digs in:
Kellyanne Conway deliberately conflates challenges to a voting count, resulting in statutorily sanctioned recount processes, with Trump’s allegations of fraud and “rigging.” The former is a legitimate process to ensure that the votes have been counted accurately. No one disputes that, if the Electoral College result turns on a very close vote in one state (a la Florida in 2000), a recount would be legitimate and appropriate. Conway has set up a straw man here.
Let’s bear in mind that no one would even be having this conversation if it weren’t for two facts: (1) Trump is claiming, without any evidence whatsoever, that the Democrats—apparently in conjunction with the biased media—are somehow “rigging” the election; and (2) Trump has a history of being an immature whiner, a terrible loser, a bad sport, making similar allegations in other situations, including his claim that his television show was “screwed” out of Emmy Awards.
The Emmys are all politics, that's why, despite nominations, The Apprentice never won--even though it should have many times over.
He is truly a pathetic creature, and all of this would be funny if there wasn’t a real danger that he could actually win the election or, if he loses, irresponsibly set off a wave of violence (in the worst case scenario) and a loss of confidence in our electoral processes by a significant portion of the population (in the best case scenario).
Speaking of a “history of being an immature whiner, a terrible loser, a bad sport,” check out Trump’s tweet-storm right after the 2012 election (when Obama decisively beat Romney 332 to 206 in the Electoral College and 51 percent to 47 percent in the popular vote—a margin of nearly five million votes—with zero claims of voting irregularities by the Romney campaign or any other legitimate party):
That’s an array of execrable stuff, but the line, “The phoney [sic] electoral college made a laughing stock out of our nation” reminds me of the $100,000 full-page ad Trump bought all the way back in 1987 criticizing U.S. foreign policy—an open letter to the American people that ended with, “Let’s not let our great country be laughed at anymore.” The only people laughing last night in the debate hall were the audience members reacting to Trump saying, “Nobody has more respect for women than I do”:
Conservatives want to channel fraud hysteria into vote suppression, not Trump's pointless delegitimizing rhetoric https://t.co/aP5ujIDNMh
Here’s another reader, Matt, on the Florida recount conflation that Conway is pushing (though if you disagree with Matt or our previous reader and think Conway has a point, please drop us a note and we’ll air it):
I’ve never written in before, but I would like to see the point made that Al Gore did NOT mount an election challenge to the 2000 election. In fact George W. Bush mounted the challenge, which is why he was the plaintiff. There is a reason that the case is titled Bush v. Gore and not the other way around. Simply put, Bush sought to intervene in the counting of ballots, not Gore. It’s offensive to me, as an attorney, to see this basic fact disputed. It’s in the caption of the case! Maybe it’s a minor point, but it again shows the utter dishonesty of the Trump campaign. Gore sought to have votes counted through the Florida courts. He was successful. Bush instituted federal litigation to prevent those votes from being counted. Bush was successful in federal court. Bush was the plaintiff in federal court—Bush brought the action in federal court—which is to say he challenged the results. This is undisputed.
Speaking of Bushes, here’s a letter from the elder one to Bill Clinton after losing the 1992 election. Just marvel at the contrast between these noble words and Trump’s rancid rhetoric:
When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.
I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.
There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.
You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.
Your success is now our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.
I wonder if we can't examine something a little more closely regarding a comment by reader Matt on Trump surrogates conflating the candidates “rigging” claims with the 2000 election. Matt makes the compelling argument that it was George W. Bush, not Al Gore, who challenged the election results, which is why Bush was the plaintiff, as in the entitled case Bush v. Gore.
An attorney I know argues otherwise—that Gore and Lieberman were the original plaintiffs. He explains that the original case as described in the first-level appeal as: Judgment of Circuit Court, in and for Leon County, N. Sanders Sauls, Judge, Case No. CV 00-2808 - Certified by the District Court of Appeal, First District, Case No. 1D00-4745. The original plaintiffs were Gore and Lieberman. It went from the Circuit Court to the District Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, and then to the Florida Supreme Court. The Florida Supreme Court was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The position of Bush first there is simply a reflection of the way the U.S. Supreme Court titles cases. The whole situation involved multiple actions and is complex. In the final U.S. Supreme Court docket (531 U.S. 98) Bush and Cheney were the petitioners and that is why they are first in the title. This was the petition for writ of certiorari from the Florida Supreme Court judgment rendered on December 8, 2000.
I realize this starts to get deep into the weeds of legalese but perhaps Matt—or someone—can comment on this. Let me be clear: I don’t raise this question in defense of Donald Trump or the claims of his acolytes. My only interest here is in clarity and accuracy.
Frankly, the bounds of propriety and good taste prohibit me from resorting to an appropriate descriptor of Mr. Trump fitting of my New York City upbringing. His claim of large-scale voter fraud is both irresponsible and preposterous. Anyone familiar with Donald Trump’s past shouldn’t be surprised by his behavior in this campaign. He has a long history of claiming victimization while eschewing self-accountability, which is ironic, given that Republicans/conservatives, etc. constantly prattle on about people being accountable for their own actions. That his supporters cannot accept this, and that they are conflating his rigging arguments with the 2000 election is a sad state of affairs.
Our previous note explored why such a high-percentage of evangelical Christians continue to support an amoral candidate like Trump, especially in the wake of “grab ’em by the pussy” and the cavalcade of accusers coming forward. This next reader, Holly, passes along one of those “Fwd: FW: FW:” emails you’ve probably gotten from an older relative. She writes:
Hello, The Atlantic! Love the magazine. Thanks for all your work. I have pasted below a copy of an email my father-in-law sent out to his family. It is one of those “crazy” chain emails he will often forward to his sons, thinking he is enlightening them, but this one is WAY over the top and pertains to the discussion of evangelicals and Trump.
My in-laws live in Texas and have become increasingly conservative in the last 20 years. There are some, on that side of the family, who believe Christianity IS at war with Islam. This email speaks to those people when it says, “Maybe God understands we need a ‘war leader’ at this moment in time. Maybe God understands if we don't win this election, America is dead. It’s over.”
I found the email shocking as it revealed how these Christians can overlook Trump’s “aggression” and “crudeness” because that is what it “takes to win.” Did you in the media know that you unleashed the “dogs of Hell?” The email totally disses Romney and Ryan AND Ford. LOL!
Actually, my husband and I found this email disturbing and disappointing. I hope you find it an interesting window into the Christian conservative’s ability to vote for Trump.
Hope you don’t mind me sharing this with you. Personally, I think it hits the nail on this head. If you feel the same about this, please pass it on. Knowing that Franklin Graham, James Dobson and so many others are on the same page with us. Please let’s encourage everyone we know to get out and vote. God has blessed this Country and we need to do our part now.
Thanks for listening to me so early this morning, but my heart is so heavy over this election. We have kids, grand-kids that will suffer from our actions if we don’t stand strong now.
This may be the best and most honest political promotion statement you will ever read. It decidedly does not brush objections aside.
You hate Hillary? READ it.
You hate Trump? READ it.
You think there’s no choice? READ it.
And, read it with your grown-up hat on. We’ve all been dealt huge responsibility with this election. The first step toward accepting responsibility is accepting it, and the first step toward accepting it is recognizing it.
READ THIS. Read every single word. It’ll take you about three minutes. Be sure to read to the end by taking a few minutes and read all of it!
Are you sickened and despondent with the current campaign and upcoming presidential election?
I consider myself a conservative and do truly believe our country is at a political/economic/moral/social crossroads. I need to let you know I could/would never vote for Hillary Clinton to lead this country. To me, she represents everything that is wrong with our current political structure.
If you find yourself in a similar state of mind, please read the following article:
A message about Donald Trump.
Here’s a famous joke about God and how he talks to us.
A deeply faithful Christian man is stuck on roof at home with massive flooding up to the 2nd floor.
Rowboat comes. He says, “No, I’m waiting for God. I prayed and I know he’s coming.”
2nd Rowboat. “No, I’m waiting for God.”
3rd Rowboat. “No, I’m waiting for God.”
Water rises. The man drowns.
Now he’s meeting God in heaven. The religious man says, “Where were you God? I prayed. I was faithful. I asked you to save me. Why would you abandon me?”
God says, “Hey, I sent you 3 rowboats.”
Did you ever consider Trump is our rowboat?
Maybe God is trying to tell us something important—that now is not the time for a “nice Christian guy” or a “gentleman” or a typical Republican powder puff. Maybe now is the time for a natural born killer, a ruthless fighter, a warrior. Because right about now we need a miracle, or America is finished. Maybe the rules for a gentlemen don’t apply here. Maybe a gentleman and “all-around nice Christian” would lead us to slaughter.
Or do you want another Mitt Romney, Bob Dole, John McCain, Gerald Ford or Paul Ryan?
Did any of them win?
Did they lead the GOP to “the promised land?”
Did they change the direction of America? No, because if you don’t win, you have no say. Paul Ryan couldn’t even deliver his own state, Wisconsin!
And as leader of the House, Paul Ryan rolls over to Obama like my dog rolls over for a scrap of food, or a steak bone, nice, but obedient. I mean Paul Ryan … not my dog. My dog is actually a pretty good defender and loyal.
Maybe God is knocking on your door loudly, but you’re not listening.
Maybe God understands we need a “war leader” at this moment in time.
Maybe God understands if we don’t win this election, America is dead. It’s over. The greatest nation in world history will be gone. Finished. Kaput. Adios.
And with one last breath, maybe what we need to save us at the last second, is someone different. Someone you haven’t ever experienced before, because you weren’t raised in rough and tumble New York where nothing good gets accomplished unless you’re combative, aggressive, outrageous, on offense at all times, and maybe just a tad arrogant too.
Someone with a personality you’ve never seen on stage at your church.
Maybe, just maybe, being a nice gentlemanly Christian would not beat Hillary and her billion dollars, and her best friends in the media who will unleash the dogs of hell upon the GOP nominee.
I guess you think God is only nice and gentlemanly. Really?
Then you’ve missed the whole point of the Bible. When necessary, God is pretty tough. When necessary, God strikes with pain, death and destruction. When necessary, God inflicts vengeance. Maybe you think God couldn’t possibly be associated with someone like Trump.
Trump is too vicious, rude and crude.
When we won WWII, was God “nice”?
Were we gentlemanly when defeating Hitler?
Were we gentlemanly when firebombing Germany?
Were we gentlemanly when dropping atomic bombs on Japan?
Is God ever “nice” on the battlefield? Or does he send us vicious SOB’s like General George S. Patton so the good guys can defeat evil?
That’s a different role than a pastor or church leader. God understands that. And maybe it's time to re-define “nice.”
Maybe Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan aren’t nice at all, because they led us to defeat. And losing again would mean the end of America. And God can’t allow that. Maybe Romney and Ryan mean well, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Or maybe they’re just jealous they had their chance and blew it.
Maybe they’d rather help elect Hillary than allow a Trump victory that would make them look weak, feckless and incompetent.
“Even the youths shall faint and be weary, And the young men shall utterly fall, But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.” (Isiah 40:30-31)
God is about miracles. We don’t need a “nice guy” or a “gentleman” right now. It’s the 4th quarter and we’re losing 14-0. We need a miracle.
So let me repeat my message to Christians: “YOU’RE MISSING THE BOAT.”
I believe Trump is our miracle. I believe Trump is our rowboat. Except he’s more like a battleship!
No one is saying Trump is perfect.
No one is saying Trump is a perfect conservative.
But he is a patriot.
He is a warrior.
He is a capitalist.
He is the right man, at the right time.
Yes, he’s a bit rude and crude and offensive. But that may make him the perfect warrior to save America, American exceptionalism, capitalism and Judeo-Christian values. The choice should be easy.
It’s Trump … or it’s the end of the American dream.
If anything in this article strikes a positive chord with you, please pass it on.
If you have any similar chain emails sitting in your inbox, please pass it on: firstname.lastname@example.org. Update from Christopher, a reader in D.C. and Christian conservative Republican who stands in stark contrast to the other reader’s father-in-law:
Hello—Love The Atlantic, especially the work that Messrs. Fallows, Graham, Bodenner and others have done in keeping readers grounded, pushing back against the very real risk of voters becoming acclimated to what is a truly exceptional, unprecedented, and unacceptable parade of horribles from the GOP nominee.
I’m a life-long Christian, conservative, and Republican voter who has been led by faith, philosophy, and morality firmly into the #NeverTrump camp. But there are many friends, family, and co-religionists (as might be expected of a Texan) who recirculate the kind of emails and social media postings that were the subject of your last few notes.
I’ve not much to add to the excellent criticism already posted, except to note this: No pro-Trump posting I’ve seen this cycle from a “Christian” point of view has ever actually quoted Christ. Not. One.
Rather, “Christians” trot out David, or less frequently Moses, or Saul, or other flawed Old Testament characters, or cite to God leveling cities and calling for the slaughter of Israel’s enemies. And that, true, is part of the Christian tradition (no quotes there) and a foundation of the faith. But I’m astonished that “Christians” can write and circulate post after post claiming to reconcile their political behavior with their faith without citing to the One upon whom our faith is founded and named.
And there is a reason for this. The One who said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” would never approve of citing Old Testament vengeance, wrath, and human failures as an excuse for the opposite of what post-Resurrection behavior should look like. The One who preached the Beatitudes praising the Meek, Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness, the Merciful, the Pure of Heart, the Peacemakers would never condone the words and actions and appropriateness of Trump to serve as a leader (regardless of what it might mean politically). The One who rebuked the Devil’s offer of “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” would never condone those, who call themselves by His name, explicitly acknowledging that they are selling their faith for political power and trying to rationalize that using Holy Scripture.
That the behavior in which Trump engages—actually, by which he defines himself—is no longer something to be expected, welcomed, or excused, and is in fact anathema to God, was more or less Christ’s entire point and the reason for His sacrifice.
Without Christ, there is no Christianity. Absent Him, there is no authority to claim righteousness in His name (and, for His followers, to claim righteousness at all). That’s why things like this disturb me so greatly. The Devil has made American Christians the same offer as he did to Christ on that desert mountain 2,000 years ago, and so many of them have taken him up on it, rather than responding, as their Master taught: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”
The president’s mindless nationalism has come to this: Americans are not welcome in Europe or Mexico.
There is a lot of learned material written about nationalism—scholarly books and papers, histories of it, theories of it—but most of us understand that nationalism, at its heart, at its very deepest roots, is about a feeling of superiority: We are better than you. Our country is better than your country. Or even—and apologies, but this is the precise language deployed by the president of the United States: Your country is a shithole country. Ours isn’t.
In this sense, nationalism is not patriotism, which is the desire to work on behalf of your fellow citizens, to defend common values, to build something positive. Nationalism is not community spirit either, which seeks to pull people together. Nationalism has nothing to do with democratic values: Authoritarians can be nationalists; indeed, most are. Nationalism has nothing to do with the rule of law, justice, or opportunity. At its core, nationalism is rather a competition, an ugly and negative competition. There’s a reason nationalists build walls, denigrate foreigners, and denounce immigrants: Because our people are better than those people. There’s a reason nationalism has so often become violent in the past. For if we—our nation—are better, then what right do others have to live beside us? Or to occupy land that we covet? Or even, maybe, to live at all?
In France, where I live, the virus is under control. I can hardly believe the news coming out of the United States.
I returned to Paris with my family three months after President Emmanuel Macron had ordered one of the world’s most aggressive national quarantines, and one month after France had begun to ease itself out of it. When we exited the Gare Montparnasse into the late-spring glare, after a season tucked away in a rural village with more cows than people as neighbors, it was jarring to be thrust back into the world as we’d previously known it, to see those café terraces overflowing again with smiling faces.
My first reaction was one of confused frustration as we drove north across the river to our apartment. The city had been culled of its tourists, though it was bustling with inhabitants basking in their reclaimed freedom. Half at most wore masks; the other half evinced indifference. We were in the midst of a crisis, I complained to my wife. Why were so many people unable to maintain even minimal discipline?
In the beach towns south of Melbourne, everyone, it seems, knows someone who’s been attacked.
About a week after Steven Mikac began taking antibiotics for the strange spot on his leg, the flesh around his ankle started to tighten and swell. The moist orifice of a wound opened up and took the form of a small bullet hole. A plug of tissue had gone missing—dissolved into pus and slime. Walking was excruciating. Working, unbearable. In early October of last year, Mikac showed his ankle to a colleague at the hospital where he works in Melbourne, in the Australian state of Victoria. She suggested that it might be Buruli ulcer—a disease caused by a strain of flesh-eating bacteria.
Though Mikac had seen local television reports about an outbreak of this tropical disease in Victoria, it sounded so freakish, so unlikely, that he hardly considered it a possibility. But like hundreds of Australians before him, he was about to become all too familiar with Buruli, a slow-moving horror show that has proved, in many ways, even more baffling to infectious-disease researchers than the novel coronavirus. After decades of research, scientists still aren’t certain who, or what, is spreading this strange malady around the world.
The disease’s “long-haulers” have endured relentless waves of debilitating symptoms—and disbelief from doctors and friends.
For Vonny LeClerc, day one was March 16.
Hours after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson instated stringent social-distancing measures to halt the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, LeClerc, a Glasgow-based journalist, arrived home feeling shivery and flushed. Over the next few days, she developed a cough, chest pain, aching joints, and a prickling sensation on her skin. After a week of bed rest, she started improving. But on day 12, every old symptom returned, amplified and with reinforcements: She spiked an intermittent fever, lost her sense of taste and smell, and struggled to breathe.
When I spoke with LeClerc on day 66, she was still experiencing waves of symptoms. “Before this, I was a fit, healthy 32-year-old,” she said. “Now I’ve been reduced to not being able to stand up in the shower without feeling fatigued. I’ve tried going to the supermarket and I’m in bed for days afterwards. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.” Despite her best efforts, LeClerc has not been able to get a test, but “every doctor I’ve spoken to says there’s no shadow of a doubt that this has been COVID,” she said. Today is day 80.
The writer and activist has the painful, powerful words for this political moment. America just needs to heed them.
“There are days—this is one of them—when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. How, precisely, are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here and how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here. I’m terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human. And I base this on their conduct, not on what they say. And this means that they have become in themselves moral monsters.”
James Baldwin made this somber observation more than 50 years ago. I included these words in my film I Am Not Your Negro, which explored Baldwin’s searing assessment of American society through the lens of the assassination of three of his friends: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. It is a film that cruelly shortens time and space between acts of police brutality in Birmingham in 1963 and images of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of Michael Brown; recent images of protests over the death of George Floyd extend that tragic connection to the present-day.
For most of the past three years, the only thing more futile than looking for Donald Trump to pivot was expecting the American people to do so. No matter how successful the president was, or, more often, how chaotic and disorderly his administration was, nothing seemed to be able to shake up people’s views of Trump.
Popular approval of Trump hovered in the same narrow range, roughly from 39 to 45 percent, through Charlottesville and tax reform, supposed border caravans and mass shootings, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report and impeachment.
As the election approaches, the president’s approval rating becomes less important than how he’s polling against his challenger. And in the past few weeks, something has shifted. After months of Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, leading by single digits, a series of polls has recently shown him building a sizable lead. Surveys from The New York Times/Siena College and Harvard/Harris have Trump trailing by 14 and 12 points, respectively. A series of swing-state polls shows Biden tied or leading in states that Trump won comfortably in 2016.
Imagine if the National Transportation Safety Board investigated America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Coping with a pandemic is one of the most complex challenges a society can face. To minimize death and damage, leaders and citizens must orchestrate a huge array of different resources and tools. Scientists must explore the most advanced frontiers of research while citizens attend to the least glamorous tasks of personal hygiene. Physical supplies matter—test kits, protective gear—but so do intangibles, such as “flattening the curve” and public trust in official statements. The response must be global, because the virus can spread anywhere, but an effective response also depends heavily on national policies, plus implementation at the state and community level. Businesses must work with governments, and epidemiologists with economists and educators. Saving lives demands minute-by-minute attention from health-care workers and emergency crews, but it also depends on advance preparation for threats that might not reveal themselves for many years. I have heard military and intelligence officials describe some threats as requiring a “whole of nation” response, rather than being manageable with any one element of “hard” or “soft” power or even a “whole of government” approach. Saving lives during a pandemic is a challenge of this nature and magnitude.
Sixteen states have reported record caseloads since Sunday.
The American pandemic is careening out of control. Yesterday, the United States reported more than 52,000 new cases of the coronavirus, setting a new all-time daily record, according to the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic. The surge has put the country’s supply of coronavirus tests under strain, especially in some of the worst-hit states, such as Arizona, Texas, Florida, and California. But unlike in past weeks or months, the outbreak is no longer limited to a handful of states or cities. Many places across the country are seeing caseloads spike.
To the degree that the U.S. ever built an infrastructure to contain and suppress the coronavirus, it frayed this week.
Along the way, nearly every previous landmark for measuring the pandemic has been overwhelmed. The country reported about 300,000 new COVID-19 cases in the past week, more than in any previous week of the pandemic so far. This shattered the old record of more than 215,000 new cases, which was set last week. On June 16, Vice President Mike Pence bragged that the U.S. was seeing an average of 20,000 new infections a day, a decline from the April high of about 30,000 new daily cases. Since Pence’s boast, the U.S. has recorded more than 30,000 new cases on every day but four. Six days ago, the country reported more than 40,000 daily cases for the first time. Now it has smashed through the 50,000 mark.
Moving in with your parents is often seen as a mark of irresponsibility. The pandemic might show the country that it shouldn’t be.
Photography by Caroline Tompkins
Image above: Marielle Brenner, age 25, in the living room of her parents’ house in Melville, New York, in June. She moved back in with them after the economic fallout from the pandemic made her rent in Chicago unaffordable.
For the most part, the pandemic has restricted motion in America. But one exception has been a large-scale nationwide reshuffling of humans between homes. Before the coronavirus came to the United States, many of the country’s young adults were working, studying, and building lives on their own. Now a great deal of them are back to living with their parents.
The number of American adults who have returned to living at home is enormous. A recent analysis of government data by the real-estate website Zillow indicated that about 2.9 million adults moved in with a parent or grandparent in March, April, and May, if college students were included; most of them were 25 or younger. Their sudden dispersal into their parents’ homes is, for some, the result of the suspension of spring classes on college campuses and, for others, the result of miserable economic conditions. A survey from the Pew Research Center in March found that the younger an American adult is, the more likely that the pandemic has deprived them or someone in their household of work or earnings. Rent and other expenses got harder to cover, or simply to justify, for a large group of young people, so they moved home.
The revolution wasn’t only an effort to establish independence from the British—it was also a push to preserve slavery and suppress Native American resistance.
“We hold these truths to be self evident.” Say these words, and many Americans will be able to recite what follows: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The opening words of the Declaration of Independence—and easily its most remembered part—are widely celebrated as signifying the beginning of an exceptional American history, one characterized, despite setbacks, by a progressive expansion of rights.
The closing words of the Declaration are far less known. The last of a list of 27 grievances against King George III, they read as follows: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” These words call attention to hard truths about America’s founding that have often been brushed aside.